Ukrainian Counter-offensive Begins
After months of waiting, it seems as if the Ukrainian counter offensive has begun…probably. The Ukrainian Defense Ministry doesn’t make announcements dealing with operations, so we can only guess based on the pace of operations.
At this point, it seems that Ukraine has begun preliminary operations. There have been attacks all along the border between the two combatants, which resemble probing attacks. It’s likely that the Ukrainians are looking for a weak point where they can break through Russian defenses. At that time, Ukraine will probably commit their reserves, which contain much of their NATO heavy equipment.
One reason why it seems that Ukraine is waiting to commit its heavy units is that many of Ukraine’s heaviest brigades have NATO heavy equipment. Although the 47th Assault Brigade has joined battle with American M-2 armored vehicles, the 82nd Air Assault Brigade with its British Challenger tanks and American Stryker vehicles have yet to be committed.
There does appear to be some damaged or destroyed NATO equipment, including Leopard tanks and American Bradley vehicles. However, this doesn’t reflect the total number of Ukrainian forces engaged. Ukraine has reportedly formed 12 brigades – 9 outfitted with NATO equipment and three using Ukrainian equipment. Most of this has yet to be committed.
Of course, the “Fog of battle,” applies, so there are many questions currently. Satellite imagery shows the Ukrainians making slow progress, but there are reports that the Russians have caused many Ukrainian casualties; not unexpected given the fact that Russia has had months to bolster their defensive positions.
Although there is much ambiguity about Ukrainian goals currently, it is reasonable to assume that the Crimea is the biggest goal. But taking Crimea will be a very hard task if history is any judgement.
The battlefront can be divided into three fronts: the Eastern Front – the Donetsk area, the Southern Front – the Zaporizhia area, and the Kherson area in the West.
The Kherson area was where the Kakhovka Dam was destroyed. Satellite imagery indicates the explosions came from within the dam, in Russian controlled territory. The blast flooded the Dnieper River, which prevents Ukraine attacks on the western front and allows the Russians to shift troops to the Southern and Eastern fronts.
The southern front, which includes Zaporizhia, is where the heaviest fighting seems to be occurring. It represents the best route to cut off the land bridge to Crimea and the Russians have spent months building layers of defensive positions. They have also fielded some of their best units in this theater.
Currently, these Russian units have successfully limited Ukraine advances and have destroyed some NATO equipment. However, it’s important to realize that these Russian units are better than Russian units defending other areas.
The Eastern Front – the Donetsk area, has seen the best Ukraine advances – up to two kilometers in the Bakhmut area. This theater has several lines of communications that support the continued Russian occupation of Crimea.
The results of the battle have been mixed. The Russians in some areas have shown more doctrinal discipline, which has led to more Ukraine casualties.
The future remains uncertain. The strategy of attacking several areas along the battlefront improves a chance to find a weak point, at the price of more casualties. And, even if Ukraine does blow a hole in the Russian front, there is no guarantee that Russian air power and artillery won’t stop the advance and seal the break. The Ukraine forces then find themselves with the same narrow lines of communications that Russia is currently tasked with defending.
Remember that taking the Crimea is a major effort with no guarantees of succeeding. In World War Two, it took the Nazis eight months to take the Soviet naval base of Sevastopol on the Crimean Peninsula. The conquest took massive amounts of artillery shells, which the Ukraine is having problems supplying.
It’s important to remember that France, Britain, and Turkey were unable to capture Crimea in the Crimean War.
It is more likely that Ukraine may capture part of the peninsula, which could be a bargaining chip in negotiations and political disaster for Putin.
It is more likely that Ukraine could retake much of the area that Russia took over a year ago. They could also cut water supplies off and force Russia to supply their garrison through cargo aircraft, naval vessels, and the Kerch Strait Bridge that connects Russia and Crimea.
Other Factors Impacting the Counter Offensive
There are several factors that could impact the offensive. The first is additional supplies from NATO. The Ukraine will lose tanks, and will NATO countries be able or willing to replace losses?
Will NATO start supplying fighter aircraft like the F-16? Ukrainian pilots have proven to be able to master the F-16 and the only question is if they can hold their own against Russian fighters.
There is also the question of sending soldiers to Ukraine – something popular with Poland and the Baltic nations. If the battlefront once again resembles a World War One network of trenches, Russia could try to bleed the Ukrainian Army – which could force some European nations to send some forces, probably technical teams instead of conventional infantry.
Even now there are NATO special forces training Ukrainian troops.
However, it may be best for Russia to remember that France saw its population decline during WWI, only to be on the winning side. Russia could win the demographic war, only to lose the military war.
There is also the question of artillery ammunition. Ukraine has used artillery to great effect in recent battles like Bakhmut, where the Ukrainians turned a potential Russian victory into a Russian pyrrhic victory. With artillery able to fire many rounds a minute, an engagement of a few days can quickly wipe out artillery shell reserves. Even with artillery reserves, the supply of high-tech weapon ammunition is even more questionable as contracts must be made and some of the electronics isn’t being produced now.
At this point, the Ukrainian counter offensive is still up in the air. A victory may not be enough to force Putin to come to the negotiating table. But it could regain much of what Ukraine lost over a year ago.
We will have to see.